Thursday, October 18, 2012

Another media "shoe" drops

I've posted at length here about how certain media are suffering in the face of rapid technological change.  You have seen my rants about how my town's formerly daily newspaper has--mostly through arrogance and a severe lack of understanding of its readership and advertisers--fumbled badly their inevitable transition to a digital format.

Well, today comes news that another venerable brand in the media is succumbing:

Tina Brown, who edits Newsweek and The Daily Beast, announced this morning that the nearly 80-year-old weekly news magazine will go all-digital. The December 31 edition will be the last one in print. Its online successor, to be called Newsweek Global, will offer a single, subscription-based international edition designed for e-readers, tablets and the Web and targeted to opinion leaders. Even so, Brown and Newsweek Daily Beast CEO Baba Shetty say that they “anticipate staff reductions and the streamlining of our editorial and business operations both here in the U.S. and internationally.” The execs say that they are “transitioning Newsweek, not saying goodbye to it,” adding that they “remain committed to Newsweek and to the journalism that it represents. This decision is not about the quality of the brand or the journalism—that is as powerful as ever. It is about the challenging economics of print publishing and distribution.”

(This excerpt is from DEADLINE.)

I admit that once I got over the initial shock of learning this icon's print version would go away--and that its CEO's name is "Baba Shetty"--I came to the realization that I had not read a word in Newsweek in over a decade. I think I saw a copy in the dentist's office a while back but the copy date was months before, and the news in it, even when the issue was fresh, was over a week old.

Time--and technology as it affects media--marches on.  Trees everywhere are cheering.  And I'll have more and more fodder for this little blog as more dominoes fall.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

That ham radio trend line

There's an interesting discussion ongoing on some of the amateur radio blogs about how an analysis of the number of searches in Google for the term "ham radio" is trending.  No doubt about it, if you simply look at the graph, it shows the hobby I love so much--and that I fully credit for getting me into a career in media--is trending more and more southward:

This could mean a number of things:

  • Interest in amateur radio is dwindling.
  • People are getting their info about ham radio in other ways besides searching for the term on Google.
  • They are searching for info on the hobby using other keywords, such as "amateur radio."
  • Nowadays, people search initially for information on a subject and then, if they find what they seek, they bookmark it/make it a favorite and don't search anymore on Google.
You know what my heart tells me.  Licensing backs me up.  We have more licensed amateurs in the country now than ever before in the 100-year history of the hobby.  My sense is that the hobby is vibrant and growing, and, before you give me that "rose-colored glasses" brand, I am pretty good at looking at things such as research data realistically.

On the other hand, I still believe it behooves those of us active in the hobby, those who want to see it continue to grow, expand, and become even more exciting and diverse, have to be evangelistic about it.  We have to do what we can to recruit potential hams into our little "cult of the airwaves."

That was one reason I wrote the book RIDING THE SHORTWAVES: EXPLORING THE MAGIC OF AMATEUR RADIO.  I want people to understand that the hobby can be much more than sitting in a basement sending Morse code.  As with most technology, our avocation has dramatically changed, and for the better.  It offers so much to younger people who have grown up with cable, satellites, computers, and smart phones, and who might think amateur radio is still what their weird uncle used to do in his back room with all that spittin' and sparkin' radio junk.  And it absolutely can lead to a career in a technical field, including computers, comunications, engineering, meteorology, media and more.

We won't panic about that trend line.  We will continue to do what we should be able to do best: COMMUNICATE!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Last kick to the groin of THE BIRMINGHAM NEWS

Okay, this will be my last diatribe against the "new, expanded" three-day-a-week, "subscribe to our twice-a-day email or go to our digital platform for the latest breaking news" BIRMINGHAM NEWS.  See, I am sure these are good business people, doing all they can to serve their customers and the public trust, reacting intelligently and with determination to rapidly changing technology as it affects the media.

No!  No, I don't believe that for a moment.  I believe they are clueless and more than a bit arrogant.  They should have seen this change coming and started reacting to it years ago.  But I suspect that is where the arrogance got in the way.

Blessed with a building full of printing presses and a talented staff of writers and editors, plus a legacy of printing and delivering a daily newspaper for a long, long time, they obviously felt they were immune to technological innovation as it pertained to media.  They even built a beautiful new and likely very expensive building downtown, across the street from the one that had served them well for lo, these many years, so they clearly felt business would continue happily.  Did they not see how other media were being decimated by Internet, email, cell phones, satellites, and more?  No, they didn't.

Did they not see their customers growing older, grayer, and falling away in shocking numbers, either dying off or choosing to get their news in more instantaneous ways?  Did they make any effort to cater to younger or more technically savvy readers?  No, again.  Yet they continued to charge for advertising as if their readers were still there in abundance and actually represented the demographics that many advertisers craved.

Did they not see that there could be some kind of marriage between new and old technology that would made a daily paper economically feasible while still meeting the "I want it now and on whatever device I choose" needs of younger customers?  They must have suspected it or they would not have created the relationship with, their digital partner, years ago.  Yet they never seemed to fully buy in and make it a true working relationship until they had to...when they stopped publishing a paper four days a week and news-hungry readers had no other choice.  And, from the looks of, they still don't understand that traditional newspaper readers are completely lost (read: "mad as hell!) with their dismal, confusing and flying-ad-dominated web site.

So for the last two times THE BIRMINGHAM NEWS has landed in my driveway, they have thrown me TWO newspapers.  Sunday, the first three sections--including my beloved sports--were missing in one of the packages but all were there, thankfully, in the second one.  Today, there were TWO complete papers, all in pink newsprint in a worthy breast-cancer-awareness effort...which I appreciate, what with my wife being sixteen years cancer free after a bout with that bastard of a disease.

And in addition to the continuing mass of typos, I am also bothered by the way they now do the comics and puzzles.  Today, they ran the Wednesday ones first, followed by Tuesday and then Monday.  That means if you do the Jumble, as I do, you get the answers to Tuesday's puzzle right there at the bottom of Monday's, before you even turn to Tuesday.  And Monday's answers show up in the second puzzle, intended for Tuesday.  Wednesday's answers won't show up until Friday, I assume.  And though I am no fan of most of the comic strips, does this mean that regular readers of those panels that have continuing stories need to start reading backwards, from the last of the section, in order to follow their strips in chronological order?

Do they even care anymore?

Even before I knew of THE BIRMINGHAM NEWS's three-day-a-week decision, about how dismally they would fail in a promise of "new, expanded content," and how terrible a transition they would make to a replacement digital platform, I had predicted that we would be without a daily newspaper here in my hometown within five years.

I now predict that will only take three years.  And I may be a hopeless optimist in that dire bit of prophecy.

Don Keith N4KC

Monday, October 8, 2012

I stand corrected...

I apologize.  Apparently I was the only one disappointed by the new "expanded" editions of my local formerly-daily newspaper, THE BIRMINGHAM NEWS.  Although it is now published only three days a week instead of seven, the newly formed entity responsible for both the printed and digital editions has repeatedly told subscribers that those three papers would offer much more content and would be well worth only getting three-sevenths of what we pay for.

Well, in my previous post here, I expressed my disappointment in the initial edition, which landed somewhere in the same zip code as my driveway on Wednesday.  Disappointment on a number of fronts, including LESS content, a staggering number of typos, pages padded with larger fonts and big ads for the paper itself, it's digital affiliate, and employment ads for the new company.  (That last one especially vexed me, because we all know they furloughed a bunch of people and immediately began running those "we are hiring" ads, yet a cursory look at Alabama Media Group's employment site elicited the cryptic phrase "no active job openings at this time."  Huh?)

(Incidentally, they must be getting a bit of negative feedback.  I note that we can now subscribe to a daily "obituary" email that lands in our in-boxes if we are afraid we might miss the death and burial of a friend or acquaintance due to the infrequent publication schedule of the new newspaper.  Seems a tad ghoulish but who knows?  And they will also be offering an "early edition" of the Sunday sports section, available on Saturday, to fill the gap in high school sports coverage.  How that will work after football season remains to be seen.  I can't see many wanting to rush out and get an "early edition" of the Sunday sports pages to check prep track and field results in the spring.)

I must have been wrong in my hasty opinions.  In Sunday's print edition, there was an article--the latest in a series of their "here's why this is happening" expositions--in which Kevin Wendt, their vice-president/content, gushed at what an overwhelmingly positive response there was to their three-day-a-week "expanded" edition.

He should know.  He is VP/content.  Surely they are giving him feedback.

I have no idea.  I'm just a subscriber who felt otherwise, based on my observation of all three editions so far.  Nothing in Friday's or Sunday's papers has caused me to change my mind.  (By the way, what is it with the two-inch strip of white that now appears at the bottom of each page?  Is that the same tactic THE NEWS used several months ago when they clipped the horizontal size of the paper by what appears to be two columns on each side without telling anybody?  When their "broadsheet" became a "not-so-broadsheet?"  They just need to make sure they adjust ads in their classified section accordingly.  Yesterday, a bunch of classified display ads were clipped at the bottom and I know those will be hefty refunds or make-goods the paper will have to swallow.)

No, if Mr. Wendt maintains folks have absolutely been thrilled by the new, expanded content, I suppose he is in a position to know.  My sample is only the several dozen people with whom I have discussed this.  And it has been exactly 100% negative with no margin of error.

Mr. Wendt further maintains as a very positive sign the fact that hits on were up 28% at the first of last week.  Wow!  With several players for Alabama injured over the weekend and with their future statuses unknown in time for that weekend's Sunday paper, the presidential candidates debating each other, a family killed by fleeing (alleged) felons in a car crash, and other relatively major stories breaking--and no newspaper on Monday or Tuesday to give us the details--a few more people decided to wade through the maze of headlines, pop-up ads, and junk that is's cluttered and unfriendly interface to try to find out more.  I wonder what their impression was of how they will now have to attempt to get their news fix.

Sorry I cannot directly address more of Mr. Wendt's reassurances.  Nor can I, in the spirit of fairness, give you a link here to his reassuring words.  See, we tossed the Sunday paper--except for the coupons--in time for the garbage truck this morning.  And despite spending most of the past hour trying to find the column on, I was unable to do so.

I suppose THE NEWS was afraid that wonderful and reassuring piece might have been viewed as too self-serving by the booming new digital readership.

Don Keith

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Time marches on...but "new" newspaper stumbles

Look, I get it.  This blog, after all, deals in part with how rapidly changing technology affects media.  I understand why my local daily newspaper, The Birmingham News, has gone to only three printed papers a week while attempting to shuttle subscribers to their online affiliate,, and a "digital edition" of those three papers they intend to print and toss my way each week.

And while I may be a curmudgeon, I am not the typical newspaper-loving curmudgeon who simply refuses to accept such dramatic change to a daily habit.  Again, I understand the technological...and, more importantly, the economic...factors that are driving this thing.  Just as with books, radio, TV, and all other media, there continues to be speedy change and it will be difficult for many of us--even those who have grown up during a time when all this came about--to adapt as this parade becomes a foot race.

But The Birmingham News is stumbling right out of the block.

I won't even go into the snafu of trying to get my subscription renewed, an adventure in which they wanted to charge me the same seven-day-a-week rate for only three papers a week, then offered me a stunningly low price to renew, but then somehow cancelled my existing subscription in the process, a month before it ran out and the new delivery deal started.  Or later refused to honor that stunningly low price, saying it did not even exist on their rate card, but still lowered the price somewhat...after finally re-starting the subscription I had already paid for.  No, I won't even go into that.

Today was the first day of the "new, expanded" daily paper.  To soften the blow, the paper has continually promised that those three printed editions each week would be well worth giving up the other four days.  I did miss my Monday and Tuesday papers, but with the promise that those three papers a week would offer much more content and features, I awaited anxiously the delivery of my Wednesday edition.  Since this was the first one, I figured it would live up to the hype and be an example of what was to come.

I was even a bit nostalgic as I walked down and found it, halfway down the hill next to the driveway, under the crepe myrtle tree, amid the briers, where the carrier has consistently thrown it for the past ten years, despite my complaints and the 150 feet of nice grass frontage on the street where he/she could have more easily tossed it.

Upon lifting it, it did seem to be only about the same weight as the usual Wednesday paper, with all the food ad inserts, but I still hoped the content was all that was promised in all those comforting articles the paper has been running for the past few months.  Here is what I found inside that tightly bagged publication:

  • Once the inserts were set aside, the paper actually seemed slimmer than the usual day...except for Mondays, which has recently more resembled a pamphlet.
  • Typos!  Lord, the articles I perused were full of typos.  I have heard that many employees have been furloughed at the paper, and it appears some of them were copy editors.  You would have thought, with three days to produce this, their first edition  under the new deal, they would have had ample time to edit their copy.  Guess not.
  • The editorial page was practically vacant.  Today, on the day of the first presidential debate, I would have loved to have seen some of the usual columnists' opinions, one way or the other.  Even the editorial cartoon...which has been a mish-mash anyway since their last full time cartoonist fled for greener pastures...was of a naked angel distributing what appear to be printed newspapers, carrying some kind of cryptic sign that seems to make a reference to the paper's move to digital.  The cartoon was in color, though.  Maybe that is what is meant by "new, expanded."
  • No separate "Local" or "State" sections of news.  They were crammed into the front section, and even that was taken up with two big ads for employment at the new Birmingham News.  Two ads the paper has been running for all those new jobs for which they are hiring...after the furlough of long-time staffers mentioned above who were, apparently, unable or unwilling to move to the digital world.
  • Apparently the number one worry among miffed subscribers has been how this new publication schedule will affect those polar opposite sections, the obituaries and the comics.  Well, I see several dead folks who had the audacity to go to their rewards on a day when their obit would not be printed--except somewhere amid the bits and bytes on after their interment.  And does running three days' worth of comic strips, crossword puzzles, Sodoku, Dear Abby, and Jumble in one fell swoop give the same experience as it once did?  It certainly does not fill the promise of "expanded," though the actual, physical size of the puzzles is certainly EXPANDED.  They are huge!  At least I can cheat and identify that one obscure word in Jumble by simply flipping over a few pages. Unless it is the last one in the bunch, then I have to wait until Friday to cheat.  And I can enjoy a triple dose of Dilbert...once I finally locate the strips among the huge conglomeration of cartoons across those six pages full.
  • I don't know what it was, but something was missing in the paper today.  There was little substance at all.  The "Food" section was combined with the "Living" section, yet even jammed together, there were only three pages of content before the comics and puzzles.  "Business" was slim, too, but I suppose I should be thankful they still ran the "Alabama Stocks" listing and in much bigger font.  If I didn't cynically suspect they did that to fill space, though.
  • The "Sports" section.  Goodness.  When I heard "new, expanded," I thought immediately of how they would now go into greater depth in their sports coverage.  Maybe expand baseball coverage some since there are still some divisional races going on.  NASCAR is at Talladega this weekend, so racing coverage would be huge.  Alabama is the number one college football team in the country and the Auburn Tigers and the real local team, UAB, are having a tough year, so now they can spend more time and newsprint delving into the teams, players, strategy.  Nope.  There appears to be even less content!  In an effort to fill even the six pages of "content" in today's sport section, they used a bigger font to list the games upcoming this weekend as well as the betting lines, and on the second page, they put a picture four columns wide of a guy on a surfboard in France.  On a surfboard in France!  Baseball?  Today's games were listed.  Not even divisional standings.  By default, I have to go online to see what's happening.  College football?  The short roundup of each of the teams consisted mostly of material from the coaches' MONDAY news conference!  And their lead sports columnist's offering today has at least three of those serious typos mentioned above.  Oh, and of those six pages, one full page was an ad for
Okay, it was their first "new, expanded" paper.  Maybe they are honing it, pacing themselves.  But they've known for months now that this edition would be landing beneath my crepe myrtle tree amid the briers.  Seems they would have come out smoking, not only meeting but exceeding the expectations of guys like me who would be a tad cynical no matter what.

It didn't happen.  And, by the way, they are fumbling the whole digital thing, too. has a less than impressive user interface, even after some clean-up they have done lately.  And it is especially baffling to those accustomed to a printed paper, who want to scan not only headlines but the first paragraph or two of a story before committing to clicking to read it all, putting up with pop-up ads, flashing icons, peel-down corners, and more.

Apparently, they anticipated the angst.  Monday morning, I glanced out my window and saw what appeared to be a newspaper in the drive-way...not beneath the tree in the briers.  Huh?  Turns out, it was a publication attempting to tell folks how to navigate their new source of news on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and  And it took them eight pages to try.  Eight pages filled with confusing but colorful stuff.  I can only imagine what most of those receiving it thought.  And how the ones for whom it was obviously targeted--those with limited computer skills--would react.  

Is there some irony in the fact that the publication attempting to give instructions on using the News's new digital platform contained almost as much content as their "new, expanded" printed edition that landed in my brier patch today?

Don Keith

Monday, October 1, 2012

Paying your fair share of income taxes?


You can argue back and forth all you want about whether or not presidential candidate Mitt Romney is paying his fair share of taxes.  Whether 14%...much less than the percentage less-advantaged citizens, including me, pay of their own fair or not.  Seems to me, though, that most of those who paid more, as a percentage of income, did just what Mr. Romney did.  They probably did not use dedicated accountants and tax lawyers, but they did go to H&R Block or used TurboTax to complete their returns.  And they took advantage of every single deduction and exemption they legally (and sometimes not so legally) could employ, all to lower their obligation.

Didn't you?  Did you not take advantage of every loophole and deduction you could find in order to avoid paying any more than you were required to pay?

On a similar subject, and one that is near to my heart, is just how stupid, bloated and unnecessarily complex our current tax code is in this country.  An interesting article I received recently from my financial advisor--one of his jobs is to help me invest what little money I have in a way in which I can keep all of it that I am legally allowed to--talks specifically to an interesting point: how much our tax laws actually cost and me...and all because of how goofy it is:

In 2011, the Laffer Center published a report detailing the cost of complying - or creatively circumventing - our nation's tax code. The report estimated that U.S. taxpayers pay more than $431 billion annually to comply with and support the administration of the U.S. income tax system. That comes to nearly a third (30%) of the total income taxes collected - money that potentially could be saved by a simpler tax code.

According to the report, taxpayers spend money unnecessarily to comply with today's tax code in various ways. For example, time and money is spent collecting records, organizing files, and learning tax regulations that change every year. Businesses hire teams of accountants, lawyers, and tax professionals to track, measure, and pay their taxes. And perhaps the greatest expenditures are used to hire tax experts to take advantage of our complex tax code for legal tax avoidance and even illegal tax evasion.

According to the Laffer report, the following are specific yearly cost estimates for how much we, as a country, spend in these endeavors:
  • $31.5 billion for professional tax preparers such as H&R Block and purchasing tax software
  • $12.4 billion in IRS administrative costs
  • $377.9 billion is how much it costs individuals to spend 3.16 billion hours complying with the income tax code
  • $216.2 billion is how much it costs the U.S. economy to have these hours diverted to this non work/productivity endeavor
  • $2.94 billion is how much it costs businesses to comply with the business income tax code,
  • $161.7 billion is how much it costs the U.S. economy to have these corporate resources diverted to non-revenue overhead expenses
  • $9.3 billion is spent on taxpayer audits each year

For far too long, our tax code has been used for so many other purposes than what taxation is supposed to do--pay for our government and what it is specifically designated to do with the money--that it has become a mishmash so convoluted and dense that nobody understands it.  That includes the branch of government, the Internal Revenue Service, whose job it is to administer it.  Hence those articles every year about people who call the IRS with questions and get the wrong answers.

I'm afraid it has also become so intertwined and interlaced that it will be impossible to bring any kind of sanity back into the mess.

Or am I just being my usual pessimistic self when it comes to bureaucracy and big government?

Don Keith